'This Is Us' Has Some Mixed Messages About Parenting in "Career Days"
This Is Us is in danger of presenting parenthood as a zero sum game.
This Is UsAirtime: Tuesdays, 9PM
Cast: Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia, Sterling K. Brown, Justin Hartley, Chrissy Metz
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 6 - "Career Days"
Air date: 2016-11-01
This Is Us does a lot of things really well, but perhaps the most powerful tool in its arsenal is the canny way that it uses montage to establish an instant connection between the audience and the action on screen. Montages are a tricky prospect; they can often feel lazy or overcooked, a way of conveying chunks of information without having to put work into dialogue or narrative. Often, they can make audiences feel disconnected as if they're removed from the rest of the show, mini side narratives that are connected but separate.
In the first five minutes of "Career Days", we learn that Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) isn't happy in his current job even though he's progressing up the career ladder, Rebecca (recent Golden Globe nominee Mandy Moore) is feeling strained, the kids are in different stages at school, and Jack is planning on starting a new construction business. All of this is conveyed with affection and grace, reestablishing the world-view of the show and reinforcing the kind of softer-edged realism that has made it such a hit for NBC.
After coming home from a particularly strenuous day at work, Jack learns that the kid's report cards have arrived and all three of them have achieved solid, but unexceptional, Bs and Cs. Whilst this might not be a major cause of concern for most parents, it seems to be in regards to Randall (Lonnie Chavis) who has a note from his teacher asking Jack and Rebecca to schedule a visit. When they do, they learn that Randall, despite his average grades, has tested in the highest percentile of various aptitude tests and isn't meeting his full potential.
This incongruity between the standardized test and general motivation at school will become a plot thread that’s subtly signposted here. It's suggested that he go to a school that is better able to suit his academic requirements, a suggestion that Jack takes exception to and Rebecca is more willing to explore. As the show goes on, some cracks are beginning to show, mostly in how disjointed the past and the present is starting to feel, but at the core of the show is Ventimiglia and Moore's chemistry.
They are believable as a couple trying to make a life work that they aren’t entirely sure is right for them. They anchor the show because they help form its beating heart and provide solid stakes. As an audience, we know that their relationship is on rocky ground, that he’ll eventually die young, and that they love each other in all sorts of easy and difficult ways. It means that the show has something to lose, something that we know it’ll lose, which brings some immediacy and alertness to the proceedings.
In the present time, Randall (another Golden Globe nominee, Sterling K. Brown) learns that his daughter has asked her grandad, William (Ron Cephas Jones), to speak at her career day presentation. The kids are caught up in William's tales of being a jazz musician, stories which make Randall's job as a commodity trader specializing in unexpected weather changes, seem even more dull. This makes Randall feel inadequate, something which isn't helped by Beth's (Susan Kelechi Watson) gentle mocking of his dreams of being a cool saxophonist.
This is a smart narrative turn, linking Randall's fears of being boring with the negotiations and renegotiations that Jack and Rebecca are having about his schooling. Their past decisions have real consequences for the future, something that This Is Us is always good at bringing home. Randall's anxieties feel real and nuanced; they could come across as petty, but it's a testament to Brown's humor and sensitivity that he doesn't register as whiny. He has a real grip on the character's shifting sense of his own life.
More than anyone on the show, Randall's world has changed the most; he's discovered his birth father, his brother's moved in with him, his daughters are getting older, and he's staring down the barrel of being William's primary caregiver during a long illness. Connecting him with his life as a child, and illuminating the sacrifices that his parents made in order for him to have the life he has now, enables some of Randall's more elaborate monologues to feel less stagey.
It does, however, speak to one of the elements of the show that's growing a little bit tiresome; as we'll see in Kate’s (Chrissy Metz) storyline this week, it's clear the show's very interested in showing how Jack and Rebecca's action have damaging consequences, even if said actions are seemingly inconsequential. Rebecca telling Jack that she's on a diet is shown to be at least partly responsible for teenage Kate's (Hannah Zeile) relationship with food. Jack paying attention to Kevin (Justin Hartley) whilst he makes model airplanes establishes the weird dynamic between Kevin and Randall. Their parental decision to give Randall the best possible schooling leads him to an "early mid-life crisis", which makes him question all his life decisions. Of course, parents have an effect on their children. Nobody is arguing that we don’t all stand on the decisions, actions, thought processes, heartbreaks, and triumphs of those who came before us; but This Is Us is in danger of presenting parenthood as a zero sum game.
Take Kate for example, who seems to have a new lease on life; she's exercising, she’s in love, and she gets a new job on her first try. Her skills as Kevin's assistant, Hollywood connections, and ease with people who require more from her than an assistant should really be asked to give means that she's a prime candidate for a wealthy LA socialite looking for help.
Kate proves to be doing well, but there's more than meets the eye: her new boss’s daughter is dealing with weight issues, and clearly, at least part of why Kate was hired was because of her size. The daughter, perhaps rightly, rebels against this violently, calling Kate "the fat one" and making her drive to a party. Whilst they're traveling, the teenager berates Kate, who makes her get out of the car and walk home. Assuming that she's fired, Kate goes back to her boss’s house, apologizes, and begins to pack her things. Instead, she's praised for her actions -- which seems like a slightly bizarre-but-obvious plot twist -- and offered more responsibility and an office. Kate goes out to explain to the teenager that she's staying around and that she understands what it means to have a negative relationship with food whilst having a stereotypically beautiful mom. We learn that Kate and Rebecca don't speak much in the present day and that it's a source of anguish for them both.
Metz is fantastic as per usual; she embodies the hopes and dreams of Kate without relegating the genuine heartaches or impositions that come with her size. Layered as she is, she doesn't feel like a caricature. Kate is abrasive, funny, protective, wounded, and heroic. Metz leans into all of these facets of the character whilst presenting them as a cohesive whole.
Yet the show's insistence on showing how Rebecca's behavior systematically dismantled Kate's self-esteem, through both action and inaction, does both characters a disservice. Child Kate hands her mom a t-shirt and notices that it's a size small. She hears Rebecca say that she won't eat ice cream so Jack can pick her up, thus teaching her that the amount of love you receive is proportional to your weight. It makes sense as a construct, and it's a familial dynamic that feels genuinely fresh in the family drama genre, one that I'm sure has reverberations in the real world.
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It feels disingenuous, though, to suggest that it's the sole causal link for Kate's personal issues. It's more shallow than the show usually is, and it makes the drama feel one sided. It loads the dramatic scales in a way that isn't especially fair to Jack and Rebecca, which hobbles the even-handedness of the episode and paints them in a light that I don't think the show really wants to shine on them. It’s an easy way out; there are hundreds of reasons why we are the way we are, and zooming in on one is a trick for a less well-developed show.
Kevin meanwhile is struggling with the emotional gravity of his play; playing a widower is proving to be a challenge. The director is getting exasperated, the writer feels as if Kevin is mangling her words, and Olivia (Janet Montgomery) clearly sees herself as more qualified and capable. In an attempt to help him, Olivia asks him to go to a party with her the next day; he agrees to, partly out of professional curiosity and partly out of a romantic promise. When he meets her, he’s surprised to learn that they're not only at a wake but at the wake of somebody that neither he nor Olivia knew. This is fairly in line with the characterization of Olivia up to this point, a woman whose lack of boundaries is excused by the quality of her performances.
Kevin gets justifiably angry but stumbles upon a moment of real catharsis when he speaks to the recent widow whose house they're wandering around. Her grief and the way it's separating her from her 15-year-old son speaks to Kevin, who bursts into tears when talking about Jack's death. Once again Kevin comes across as myopic, but it's interesting and satisfying to finally see him have an emotional breakthrough. Hartley proves himself more than capable of this heavy material, and it adds shading to the characters selfish-but-lovable screw-up. It still seems like the writers have the loosest understanding of Kevin, partly because his journey is the least interesting and his motivations the most confounding, but by adding spots of vulnerability and strength, he’s inching towards compelling.
Randall decides to explain his job to the room full of pre-teens through a song, playing a piano that he doesn't know how to play. It's funny and sweet and helps him realize that, unlike Jack, he chooses to be a corporate square because that’s what he wants for his life. The show then zooms back to Randall’s childhood. Jack tests his son's math ability by asking him to do some construction-related sums. At first, he gets all of them right with impressive speed but then begins to falter when he realizes that he's revealing himself to be too smart.
Jack pushes him; Randall resists. Jack asks why he can't take pleasure in being so intelligent, and Randall breaks down because he knows that if he does well in school he'll be praised over Kevin and Kate. He doesn't want to feel any more different than he already does. Jack explains that he wants his son to be the best version of himself, even if that means acknowledging that he's adopted and of a different race, two facts that they've been skimming over in order to reinforce the family cohesion. It's a fantastic, intricate, emotionally astute scene that shows Ventimiglia at his best, and opens the show to all sorts of interesting interpretations. Randall agrees to go to the better school, Jack agrees to parlay his dreams in order to funnel them into his son’s future, and Kate and Kevin get to stay where they are.
In an episode that feels like it's trying to navigate the complicated relationships it's laid down, struggling to deal with all the chickens that have come home to roost, if you will, the thing that shines through is the love between Jack and his son.